Thursday, 1 July 2010

What’s the Time, Mahagonny?

Natascha Sadr Haghighian

3. Here in Mahagonny, life is lovely [Enter Volkseigentum, the squatter, and a water cannon]
In 1988 the Lennè-Dreieck (Lennè triangle), a piece of land on Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, located on the west side of the wall, was squatted by a group of a few hundred people. In the course of the occupation the area was renamed “Kubat-Dreieck” after Norbert Kubat, who had died in police custody on May 1, 1987.8 Since 1938 the area had belonged to Berlin’s Mitte district, but when Berlin was partitioned into East and West, it fell into an administrative void. It was physically located on the west side of the Wall, while judicially and administratively falling under the part of Mitte belonging to East Berlin, which meant that the West German police were not allowed to enter the area to evict the squatters. Over a few months people built a village on the land, with huts, communal kitchens, and gardens. When the land was eventually handed over to the West in a barter transaction, the police could finally raid the village. When the inhabitants of Kubat-Dreieck began to climb over the Wall to escape the police, the East German border troops, who were apparently prepared for this illegal border crossing, helped the escaping two hundred squatters over the 3.6 meter-high concrete wall, loaded them into vans, briefly interviewed them over breakfast, and dropped them off at another checkpoint. The West German police seized and sealed off the land after the squatters had escaped, and today the area is owned by Otto Beisheim—a prominent businessman and former member of Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard regiment, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH)—who built the Beisheim Center on it in 2004.
This incident could be seen as a forerunner to the peculiar circumstances that surrounded unsettled buildings and land ownership after the fall of the Wall, and the various, divergent ways it was dealt with. In the GDR a great deal of land and real estate, including around 98 percent of industrial facilities, was Volkseigentum—literally “public property,” understood more specifically as a socialist form of public ownership distinct not only from private property, but from state ownership as well, and mainly accumulated through dispossession.
After the fall of the Wall, it became unclear what would happen to this public property. In February 1990 the activist group Demokratie Jetzt (Democracy Now) initiated the founding of a fiduciary organization called Treuhandanstalt, which set out to protect the rights of GDR citizens with regard to the Volkseigentum. In the course of Germany’s reunification the same year, the 8,500 publicly owned enterprises as well as other publicly owned real estate and land—including agricultural land and forests, but also the property of the Stasi, the army, and political parties—were handed over to the Treuhandanstalt by mandate. However, under the legislature of the now reunified Germany, its new objective was to work as quickly as possible to privatize and redistribute the public property of the former GDR according to the terms of the market economy. The German Federal government staffed Treuhand’s board with experienced, exclusively West German managers, and stated that due to the unprecedented scale of the undertaking, the board was to be exempt from any negligence liability. A privatization and restructuring of vast proportions took its course, which was mostly a matter of incorporating East German production facilities into West German companies, followed by the subsequent closing of many of those facilities (partly in order to eliminate competitors).
A few months before the Treuhand was founded, and very close to its headquarters in the former Nazi Air Ministry, a group of people squatted the former WMF (Württembergische Metallwarenfabrik) building. It was one of many squats in the former East German capital. The ambiguous ownership and apparent absence of law enforcement had led to a renewed squatting movement that had previously been strong in the West Berlin of the 1970s and ‘80s. Botschaft, the group that squatted the WMF building, worked collectively and between disciplines to provide a platform for activism and cultural practice outside the frameworks of traditional formats such as art, film, or politics.9 Botschaft’s first large public event was a weeklong series of performances, discussions, and presentations of various kinds addressing the privatization of Potsdamer Platz, city planning, and public space in the age of “Dromomania,” which was the title of the event. “Dromomania” took place just a few days after the police brutally evicted the inhabitants of several squats in the Friedrichshain district using 3,000 Federal Police (the Bundespolizei, or BPOL) and special forces (the Spezialeinsatzkommandos, or SEK), ten armored water-cannon trucks, helicopters, tear gas, stun grenades, and actual live ammunition. Among these squats were the houses of Mainzer Strasse, comprised of twelve units inhabited by a diverse community including a women’s center, a queer squat called “Tuntenhaus,” a community kitchen, a bookstore, and much more.10 As opposed to other squats, the inhabitants of Mainzer Strasse had decided to follow a non-negotiation policy with regard to the police and the municipality. The division between the squats opting for and those opting against negotiation had already led to tensions in the squatter assembly, and the fissure was by now a fait accompli.
“Dromomania” was shaped by these events as much as by the activities around Treuhand and friends. In a moment between the past and the future, a variety of possible worlds seemed feasible, and there was no doubt that one had to get involved. However, there were various opinions as to just how long such a moment should last and what measures should be taken. Whereas some insisted upon the wish that the moment would last forever, others fought to establish more sustainable models of collective ownership and communally run spaces. The moment in fact contained a multiplicity of truths—the truths of the commons as much as the truths of capitalism. (Haghighian, 2010a)

Haghighian, N.S. (2010a) What’s the Time, Mahagonny? [Online] [01/07/2010]
Haghighian, N.S. (2010b) #103 13.05.2010 (13' 08'') [Online] [01/07/2010]